President Obama garnered praise from across the political spectrum for his moving speech last week at the memorial service for the Tucson shooting victims, including from his usual critics on the right. But don’t count the Rev. Franklin Graham as a fan of the event.
In a speech on Tuesday at John Brown University, a private Christian college in Siloam Springs, Ark., the son of the revered evangelist Billy Graham voiced “dismay” at the way the Tucson memorial service was conducted, arguing that it was not as explicitly religious — mainly “Christian” — as those following the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks.
Graham was particularly upset that the Tucson memorial featured a Native American who called upon “father sky and mother earth.”
“There was no call for the name of God to put his loving arms around the people who were hurting, the people that were suffering,” Graham said. “Why? Why did they take God out of it? Why did they leave him out?
“Because the world scoffs at the name of Jesus Christ,” Graham said, his voice rising in anger. “They scoff when you say he’s the son of God.”
Graham went on to say that the scoffing and persecution against Christians is only going to get worse.
Initial reports of Graham’s speech indicated that he may have been including Obama in his critique, though a review of the video shows that Graham says he “felt sorry” for the president “because I knew he was uncomfortable in that situation.”
Graham was referring to the pep rally atmosphere and the prayers by the Native American, an associate professor of medicine at the University, Carlos Gonzales, who is a Pascua Yaqui Indian and fifth generation Arizonan. (Graham called him a native of “the Yuppie tribe or something, I didn’t quite get it.”)
Graham also stressed his empathy for the president in an op-ed in The Washington Times on Tuesday, saying he was “proud of Mr. Obama” in Tucson in contrast with how he viewed the rest of the event.
“The president read from the Scriptures, and a couple of others,” Graham noted in his speech at John Brown University. But also said that no one mentioned God at the Tuscon event, and he said that is the way things seem to be going in America.
“And I believe the memorial service that we saw in Tucson is the template for what you are going to see in a secularized world.”
The White House declined to comment on Graham’s remarks about the service.
As USA Today’s “Faith & Reason” blogger, Cathy Grossman, noted, Graham’s critique seems “odd” given that Obama’s speech — which many agreed sounded more like a sermon — cited the consolations of Psalm 46 plus the laments of Job.
Moreover, Department of Homeland Security head (and former Arizona governor) Janet Napolitano preceded Obama and read from Isaiah 40 and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder read from the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians.
A strong majority of Americans also liked Obama’s response to the Tucson shootings, with an ABC News-Washington Post poll this week showing 78 percent approval overall, and 71 percent approval from Republicans and conservatives.
The Tucson speech was actually fairly typical of Obama’s Scripture-based rhetoric, and The Los Angeles Times explored how the president consulted his Christian spiritual advisers in composing it.
“Yet,” as Grossman writes, “Graham believes the victims of the Tucson shooting, those who knew and loved them and all who wanted to show solidarity with them — Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and beliefs unknown — were scoffing at God as they wept and cheered the speakers.”
Franklin Graham, who has become something of a shepherd to Sarah Palin (she accompanied him to Haiti last month), is becoming known for rhetoric that is far edgier than anything his father ever said, even in Billy Graham’s haler days.
He has regularly disparaged Islam, calling it an “evil” religion, a blast that got him booted from official National Day of Prayer celebrations last year. And he once made fun of Hinduism’s deities, saying that “No elephant with 100 arms can do anything for me. None of their 9,000 gods is going to lead me to salvation.”
Franklin Graham took up some of those themes again on Tuesday at John Brown.
“Even in our government today, you can’t pray to Jesus in many public meetings. You can pray to God or a god. You can mention Buddha or the name of Muhammad, but you can’t pray to Jesus Christ,” Graham told the students.
“We know that we are going to be persecuted for standing up for the name of Christ.”